Apple boosts MacBook Pro speeds in 'ho-hum' refresh

Moves to dual- and quad-core 'Sandy Bridge' processors, debuts Intel's Thunderbolt I/O technology

As anticipated, Apple today refreshed its MacBook Pro notebook line, turning to Intel's new Sandy Bridge chip architecture and adding a new connectivity technology dubbed Thunderbolt that transfers data at speeds up to 10Gbps.

Prices for most of the new models have not changed. The entry-level 13-in. MacBook Pro runs $1,199, while the most expensive 15-in. laptop still costs $2,199. Apple did raise the price of the top-of-the-line 17-in. model by $200, however, to $2,499.

"A ho-hum product announcement," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, giving his assessment of the refresh.

All MacBook Pros now run one of Intel's Core i5 or Core i7 dual- or quad-core processors, and include Intel's integrated graphics chipset. The 13-in. models some standard with dual-core i5 processors, while the 15- and 17-in. MacBook Pros sport a quad-core i7. The larger notebooks also boast AMD's Radeon HD 6490M or 6750M discrete graphics, which Apple claimed were three times faster than the Nvidia graphics in the older models.

According to Apple, all MacBook Pros are "up to twice as fast as their predecessors."

The additional power comes at a price, however. All models now feature a battery that Apple said provides 7 hours of power between charges, down from the 10 hours it boasted for last year's 13-in. MacBook Pros and off the 8-to-9 hours estimated for 2010's larger 15-in. and 17-in. models.

Gottheil, however, said that the changes in battery life estimates resulted from a new, more rigorous testing procedure that Apple is now using, and dismissed the idea that the new processors and graphics were behind the battery declines.

Apple's 13-in. MacBook Pros are powered by a 2.3GHz or 2.7GHz Core i5, come with 4GB of memory standard, and feature a 320GB or 500GB hard drive. Both rely on the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 chipset. The smaller MacBook Pros are priced at $1,199 and $1,499.

The two 15-in. models -- down from three -- run a 2GHz or 2.2GHz quad-core i7 processor, come with 4GB of memory and a 500GB or 750GB hard drive, and include AMD's graphics processor with either 256MB or 1GB of graphics RAM as well as the Intel integrated chipset. Apple eliminated the middle-of-the-road 15-in. MacBook Pro, which was priced at $1,999, but kept the low- and high-end models at $1,799 and $2,199.

Apple's new 17-in. MacBook Pro comes standard with 2.2GHz quad-core i7, 4GB of memory, a 750GB hard drive and the top-end AMD graphics card with 1GB of RAM. It was the only model of the five to get a price increase.

All MacBook Pros also now sport a new I/O (input/output) technology developed by Intel, which formerly called it Light Peak but has renamed it Thunderbolt .

Thunderbolt offers direct bi-directional connections to high-speed peripherals such as data drives, and using optional adapters, to other technologies, including FireWire, USB, Gigabit Ethernet and Apple's DisplayPort.

Apple's notebooks were the first to launch with the Thunderbolt technology.

One rumored change -- a move to solid-state drives (SSD) to mimic the MacBook Air -- didn't come to pass, something that irked Gottheil.

"I'm deeply disappointed," he said. "I thought that at the least, [the new MacBook Pros] would use a clever hybrid drive that put the OS and apps on a solid-state drive."

Customers can swap out the traditional platter-based hard drive with a SSD, but the prices run from $100 for a 128GB SSD to $1,250 for a 512GB. (The prices vary by the original configuration of the MacBook, with lower swap-out prices for models that come standard with larger hard drives.)

"Yikes, yikes, yikes," Gottheil said of the SSD prices.

Apple last revamped the MacBook Pro in April 2010, and today's refresh looks to Gottheil like a return to the line's roots.

"They're returning to the original definition of the line, where the [MacBook] Pros are for pros," Gottheil said. "And they may be trying to get back some of the margins they lost during the recession," he added. "They have come back some, but they're still not at the point they were before the recession."

Even with the increased processor, graphics and connectivity horsepower in the new MacBook Pros, Gottheil still thought that the aged MacBook and the four-month-old MacBook Air, both available for $999, is the "sweet spot" for most consumers.

He was especially high on the MacBook Air, which eschews a hard drive for an SSD. "An SSD addresses real people's performance issues, getting stuff off the disk," he maintained.

Last month, analysts disagreed over whether a design gaffe by Intel would delay the MacBook Pro relaunch . On Jan. 31, Intel acknowledged that a supporting chipset for the next-generation Sandy Bridge processors contained a flaw in the Serial-ATA (SATA) controller. The bug could cause poor hard drive performance or even make the drive invisible to the system, Intel confirmed.

Apple may have been able to sidestep the problem, and utilize flawed versions of the Intel chipset, since its notebooks could tap into the two unaffected ports to connect to systems' hard and optical drives.

The new MacBook Pros are available immediately at Apple's retail stores, some authorized resellers and via the company's online store. At the latter, the new models currently indicate a 1-to-2 day shipping delay.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

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